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Leadership & Project Management

Many project management practitioners would agree that there is no more important skill than leadership. If you want to manage a project to a successful conclusion you’d better be prepared to lead the team to that end. There are many courses available that teach leadership skills and many that teach project management skills but I’m unaware of any that teach both. Even the excellent leadership courses available will only succeed in teaching you the theory of leadership and yet leadership skills probably require the most practice to master.

Here are a few tips that may help to bridge the gaps between leadership skills and project management skills and make theory a little easier to put into practice. There are several key building blocks that can help you develop your leadership skills: Building Trust, Communicating the Vision, Looking after the Team, Honesty, and Setting Stretch Objectives. This article addresses each of these areas individually, but in practice they must be integrated to be effective.

Building Trust

If leadership is a valuable commodity then trust is the currency used to buy (and sometimes sell) it. Projects can have a significant impact on team members and can even make or break careers. The members of a project team must place a tremendous amount of trust in the project manager; these are the leaders that bear the responsibility for the projects and their careers. Without trust in the project manager, team members will not focus all their abilities on making the project a success. We’ve all seen this happen; the team member is assigned to a project, has a look around, assesses the situation and becomes convinced the project is doomed to failure. They spend their time from that point forward looking for ways of escape the impending disaster rather than ways to make the project succeed.

Establishing trust among the project team that you have what it takes to lead the project to a successful conclusion: personal trust and professional trust. The first has to do with your integrity as an individual and the second has to do with your ability to perform the work. Personal integrity is established on a one to one basis and is something that can only be done one-on-one over the course of time. The level of trust you build is also entirely gauged by the team members’ perception. One sure fire way of establishing that trust is to keep your word. Never promise anything you can’t deliver, never promise anything you shouldn’t deliver, and always keep the promises that you make.

Tip: Most of the business related things that we promise, such as promotions, raises, training courses, etc. have a degree of risk attached. This doesn’t mean you should never make a promise to a team member for any of these things but it does mean that you should always explain the risks entailed. Bonuses may be cancelled if the organization experiences a bad quarter; courses may be cancelled due to economic conditions. Always explain the risk and the likelihood of the risk event happening, to the best of your ability.

Another way to build personal trust is by treating everyone fairly. This means that if there is a hardship to be borne, you don’t let it fall on any one individual’s shoulders. If there is praise to be given, make sure that the right individual receives the praise. Here’s a rule of thumb to use when dealing out corrections and praise: correct in private and praise in public. When the objective is to correct a fault in a team member’s performance, correcting them in public merely embarrasses the corrected team member, may block the message you’re trying to communicate and will ultimately result in resentment for the scene. Praising a team member in the right environment will serve to add weight to the praise, make the occasion a memorable one, and motivate team mates in the audience.

Don’t be niggardly with your praise. This doesn’t mean that you should use every meeting as an opportunity to rain praise on everyone on the team. Be careful with it, make sure that the occasion calls for praise and then bestow it. Here’s an example of what I mean by being careful. Most of us will be tempted to praise the team member who works an 18 hour day to meet their deadline, but why couldn’t they meet their deadline without the overtime? If the answer is that they took an unscheduled "mental health” day off the preceding week, this isn’t a situation that calls for praise. On the other hand, the team member who has taken time out of their work day to help a struggling team member does deserve your praise.

Don’t forget the people that built your reputation during past projects. Nothing can deplete the trust account quicker than the perception that you use people to accomplish your goals and then forget about them. Follow up with the people who helped build your reputation as a successful project manager. Take an interest in their careers and be sure to be there for them should they require your help. You’ll find this an easy task if you genuinely like working with people.

Don’t indulge in gossip or bad-mouth people behind their backs. Believe it or not, the negative impression created by a rant about someone’s deficiencies will stick to you long after the conversation has ended. I’m not an advocate of the "if you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all” philosophy but if you are forced into a position where you must say something negative, speak to the facts behind your negative opinion and avoid broad defamatory statements.

Your business trust has more to do with a proven ability to lead projects to a successful conclusion. One of the sure ways of demonstrating this is your past history of leading your organization’s projects to a successful conclusion. If you have recently joined the organization or are a consultant, talk about your experiences in your past successes. Stick to the facts and describe your successes in terms of the team. Speak as a member of the team rather than an outsider and speak to team accomplishments rather than your personal success. You can also speak to any promotions, bonuses, or other rewards team members received.

There is no replacement for success in the trenches when it comes to building trust, but professional accreditations can bolster your image as a successful project manager. One of the finest I know of is the PMP® certification. The PMP® brand is recognized the world over as the benchmark for project managers. Don’t be afraid to append those 3 letters to your signature when you’ve acquired them (more about how to acquire them later in the article). Your PMP® designation may have been one of the criteria that got you your job in the first place and shows your employer places a level of trust in the accreditation. It should have the same affect on your project team. You can also treat any other accreditations you have received, that are applicable to the profession of managing projects, in the same fashion. There are many excellent PMP® Courses and other PMP® Exam preparation products available to you to facilitate passing the PMP Exam.

Walk the Talk (Leadership by Example)

This expression means that you must exemplify the dedication you expect from your team. I don’t mean that you need to operate the earth mover, operate the crane, write code, run chemical analysis tests, or any of the other activities you assign to your team. I mean that when you expect your team to put in long hours to meet a difficult objective you should be putting the same hours in yourself. Don’t limit this approach to working hours, you need to ensure that you share the teams pain in other areas such as attending remote meetings at inconvenient hours, sharing difficult physical conditions such as cramped office space, working outdoors in the elements, etc. When the project calls for a cutover to occur at midnight make sure you are on site with the team performing the cutover, even if it’s only to buy pizza and sodas for the team. Offer support when someone is tackling a difficult problem and is under pressure from customers or time constraints, even if the only support you can offer is moral support. Be prepared to remain in the background while your team member focuses on the problem at hand – often solving the problem under pressure means that person needs space and no interruptions. Providing this kind of help, rather than adding to the pressure they feel, will help build that trust up.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of this type of leadership was during a project I recently managed for a software vendor. The customer had a poor quarter and had to cut costs across the board. Among the first measures by that company’s senior executives was a 10% cut to their salaries. This measure was taken before any steps to cut salaries and wages for other employees. The subsequent cuts to salaries and wages were much less severe, about 4%. This approach had a noticeable effect on the moral in the organization; instead of the "doom and gloom” and insecurity one might expect the feeling was one of "we’ll get through this tough time as a team”.

Communicate the Vision

An essential element of good leadership is an ability to have a clear vision of where the team is going and the ability to clearly communicate that vision. This is a goal that sounds relatively simple but is in fact very complex. Let’s break our objective down into its basic elements first:

Overall Project Vision: the goals of the project stated in clear unambiguous terms.

Communicate the Overall Vision: use the communication resources available to you to communicate the overall vision.

Break the Vision Down: the overall vision doesn’t mean much to individual team members. You need to break the overall vision down into its component goals and objectives until each team member has a set of clearly stated objectives.

Communicate to the Individual: communicate the objectives to each individual until they fully understand what is expected of them.

Overall Project Vision

Your Project Charter or Statement of Work (SOW) will provide you with the overall project objectives or goals from an organizational or customer perspective. They may or may not be fleshed out enough for your purposes, and if they are not you will need to provide that information. This is the vision that you will communicate to the project sponsors, project stakeholders, and project team. The objectives should speak to each of the areas of the project:

Scope – what deliverables and services will the project produce?

Schedule – when will the key deliverables and services be implemented?

Budget – how much will the project cost? (Or how much will each key deliverable or service cost?)

Quality – what quality standards will be adhered to?

Communicate the Overall Vision

The information described above should be condensed into point form so that it can be captured on 1 or 2 slides. These are slides that can be used over and over again in differing presentations and meetings. They should be presented to the project sponsors, the project stakeholders, and the project team. Be persistent with these slides without appearing to brain wash your audience. The first time you present these slides to a particular audience you will speak to each point on the slide and probably have to answer questions. The 20th time you present them, you probably won’t have to speak to any points on the slide.

The points on the slide should clearly convey not only the goals and objectives described above, but what success will look like. Don’t say we’re going to build a quality software application or a quality office building, make the goals clear so that they can be met and the project can clearly demonstrate they have been met. Better quality goals: "zero sev 1 defects, less than 5 sev 2 defects”, or "the building will meet or exceed all municipal building codes”

Break the Vision Down

This activity should go hand in hand with creating the work breakdown structure. Remember that the purpose of that structure is to lay out a roadmap for completing all the work of the project and the goal is to break the work down into activities that can be assigned to team members, with a due date. Remember also that you need to be able to communicate the activities to the team members so that their tasks are clearly understood.

Your work breakdown structure may only mention the creation of a logon function assigned to programmer Jim Brown, but that won’t be a clear enough direction. Is Mr. Brown expected to do any form of unit testing? Any system testing? What are the expectations for checking the code into the library? Does he have any responsibilities for integrating his work with any other functions in the system? All these questions must be answered and the answers communicated in a clear, concise statement of objectives. Where a goal or objective is common across a team or sub-team, you can craft one statement and communicate it to the team or sub-team.

Each of the overall goals and objectives should be met by the individual statement. The scope goals will be supported, after all you are breaking the work down, but will the other goals be represented? Clearly state the due date for the work being described and state any quality objectives for the work.

Communicate to the Individual

Each of the team members must be given a clear mini mission statement. The mission statement should be captured on paper (or in an e-mail), as well as articulated to the team member. This mini mission statement serves the purpose of a contract between you and your team member. Make certain that the team member understands what is expected of them. Ask questions to ensure complete understanding and then ask for their commitment to meeting their objective. Watch for and avoid situations where the team member can’t meet the objective that you have set for them. Assigning work to someone who is incapable of performing it will lead to frustration and a failure to deliver. When you have arrived at an objective which the team member can be reasonably expected to meet, get their formal commitment to deliver. The commitment may only be verbal but it is important to establish the contract between you.

Look after the Welfare of the Team

Remember that you aren’t just the team leader, you’re a team member. Be a strong advocate for the team, even when this means taking an unpopular stand. I don’t mean that you should push for benefits for your team to the detriment of the organization, but you should be willing to speak out on their behalf to ensure that they receive fair treatment, even if it means locking horns with a peer who seeks to advance their team’s cause at the expense of yours. Your advocacy should start with the physical conditions of their work place. Make their work areas as comfortable as possible. Ensure they have easy access to bathrooms, lunch areas, coffee, soft drinks, etc.

Ensure that they have all the tools they need to accomplish their work. In the office setting these will include computers, phones, cell phones, access to fax machines, etc. Computer monitors should be large enough and with enough resolution that workers do not strain their eyes. Slowing progress on a multi-million dollar software project to save a couple of hundred bucks on computer monitors just doesn’t make sense.

You should be seen to be an advocate for your team. Don’t let disparaging remarks about the team, its chances of success, or even individual members, go unchallenged. Remarks that disparage the entire team should be confronted head on and refuted with examples of the team’s accomplishments and successes to date. Remarks that disparage individuals on the team should be explored for their basis. It is possible that the remarks are founded on fact, in which case it’s up to you to correct the situation. If they aren’t based on fact, then confront them head on as you would disparagement of the team.

Don’t be afraid to confront project stakeholders on issues that pertain to your team’s health and well-being. It may seem like you will lose your peer’s respect when you are in an adversarial situation but the effect your advocacy will have on the team’s trust in you is well worth the risk. You should also be willing to take some risks with the project sponsors or steering committee for your team. Be very careful here to avoid unreasonable demands, especially around money issues. Your sponsors or steering committee will know much more about the monetary impact of your demands on the organization’s business than you will. If you’re sure your demands on behalf of the team are reasonable, don’t be afraid to press them. You may end up losing the battle, but if you are perceived to have lost the fight and suffered the consequences the balance in your team trust account will rise.

Honesty

Most of us are great at communicating the good news as soon as we can, but it’s a little more difficult to communicate bad news and we are much more reluctant to communicate it. You must overcome this reluctance in order to build and retain the team’s trust.

Communicate all the facts as you know them, as soon as it is possible to communicate them. The timing of the communication will depend on the nature and severity of the bad news. The fact that the project is running behind schedule can usually wait until the next team status review meeting whereas the fact that the Steering Committee has reduced the budget and scope of the project by 50% should be communicated immediately.

Be certain of your facts when you are communicating bad news to the team. It isn’t always possible to go to the team with a firm grasp of all the facts, but you can communicate what you know to a certainty and the degree of accuracy and the source of less certain information. Don’t make guesses or assumptions about information you don’t have. Don’t hesitate to use the phrase "I don’t know” when that’s the truth. Be sure to include a question & answer period when delivering the bad news so that the team can get all the information you’re able to provide to them. There may be information which is confidential that you can’t divulge. Tell the team you can’t share that information with them and the reasons for its confidentiality.

One word of caution on delivering good news to the team: don’t jump the gun and deliver the good news until you’re sure of your facts. We all have the urge to share the good news with the team when Mary from accounting tells us that Jill told her your team was to get a bonus for performance based on project results to date. Nothing will deplete your trust account balance faster than sharing this piece of news with your team only to find out later that it was a rumor not based on fact.

Setting Stretch Objectives

Now that you’ve built up the balance in your team trust account, what do you do with it? Remember that you serve your organization and your responsibility is to make the project they have entrusted you with as successful as you can. You can increase your chances of success by setting stretch objectives for your team and using the balance you’ve built in your trust account to achieve team buy in.

The stretch objectives can be around any of the 4 facets of the project: scope, schedule, budget, or quality. You should be guided in your choice of objectives by the customer’s or client’s priorities and these should be described in the project charter. If they aren’t, let the project sponsors or steering committee guide your selection of stretch objectives. If you are performing the project under contract for an external customer, the contract should provide the guidance for stretch objectives.

The stretch objectives should be obtainable while still having a significant positive influence on the project. Stretch objectives should be established for the project overall and then broken down to the task level. For example, let’s say your stretch objective is to deliver a project planned to take 12 months to complete 1 month ahead of schedule. You need to identify your project’s critical path and determine how you can shorten the tasks along that path by a total of 1 month without increasing resources. Don’t neglect activities not on the critical path and for each activity make a contingency plan for the use of the responsible team member should they be able to complete their task ahead of schedule. The early completion of a task not on the critical path may enable you to add resources to one that is on the critical path and reduce that tasks schedule as well.

There is an expression: "Time is Money” that is applicable here. Reducing the time it takes to complete the project will reduce the cost and this cost savings can be applied in a variety of ways so that maximum benefit is provided the customer. For example, let’s say your project is the creation of a software operating system that runs a telephone switch. The new software and switch are due to launch July 1st and your company has invested in an extensive marketing program to launch the new product. It is unlikely that your company can realize any advantage by launching early, but what it can do is to increase the time and effort it will spend on testing so that the product quality is increased. Don’t focus all your efforts on high priority objectives, look for areas where stretch objectives make sense and then analyze how meeting these objectives can help you meet your overall stretch objectives.

Care should be given to the communication of the stretch objectives. You can’t totally ignore the project’s original objectives, these are the ones your project sponsors, customer, or steering committee, are focusing on. Sell your stretch objectives to these people first and tell them how you plan to meet them. Don’t try to represent them as better, or more realistic, objectives than the ones in your plan; apprise them of the degree of risk attached and then ask that they articulate the stretch objectives as the primary objectives and the planned objectives as secondary. Don’t attempt to deceive the team by substituting the stretch objectives for the ones in your plan, but do communicate them as the primary objectives. Explain the benefits to the organization of meeting the stretch objectives. In the example cited above, you would tell them that shortening the development cycle for the software application would allow more time for testing. Increased testing would lead to higher quality and an edge over the competition.

Communicate any bonuses or other benefits that you have negotiated for the team that will accrue to them upon meeting the stretch objectives. Professional sports, where tremendous emphasis is placed on winning, do this particularly well. A professional football team might set the capture of a divisional title as their season’s objective, and going to the Super Bowl as a stretch objective. Coaches don’t have to sell that stretch objective to the team as the financial and other rewards are already well known to the players. You’ll have to do your best to duplicate this marketing with your project team.

Conclusions

View your trust account with your project team the way you would a bank account. You make deposits by treating your team fairly, being honest with them, walking the talk, rewarding deserving members, correcting the non-producers, taking pride in the team, and advocating for them as a team and individually. The purpose of this trust is to improve your ability to lead your team to better results. The better results are called stretch objectives.

The ability to ask your team for performance that exceeds expectations will be of little use to you if you are unable to communicate the goals and objectives that they are expected to achieve. Your communication abilities should be employed to communicate your vision to the team, and to communicate the specifics of individual contributions to the project goals and objectives. It should also be employed in establishing a common understanding of those goals and objectives with your project sponsors, client, or customer.

The difference between your project trust account and a bank account is that even when all the balance has been spent achieving stretch objectives, the balance will be added to upon a project success and this balance can be carried forward to your next project.

It’s important to put all the theories, tips, and tricks you’ve learned about leadership into practice. Don’t be afraid of failure when you try out your first technique; it’s sort of like learning to ride a bike: all the attempts and falls can leave you bruised, bleeding, and frustrated, but once you master the skill you’ll arrive at your destination in no time and the skill will stay with you for the rest of your life.

The tips and tricks described in this article are intended to help the project manager using the best practices promoted by the PMI. Project managers who are certified have already implemented those best practices. If you haven't been certified as a PMP® (Project Management Professional) by the PMI and would like to learn more about certification, visit the three O Project Solutions website at: http://threeo.ca/pmpcertifications29.php. three O Project Solutions also offers a downloadable software based training tool that has prepared project managers around the world to pass their certification exams. For more information about this product, AceIt, visit the three O website at: http://threeo.ca/aceit-features-c1288.php.